HISTORIC MALDON: A closer look at the Battle of Maldon

By The Editor

20th Sep 2020 | Local News

Check out this YouTube video, giving the perspective of an Anglo-Saxon man like those who lived in Maldon at the time. Turn captions on to translate his Anglo-Saxon into modern English.

THIS week, Maldon Nub News takes a fresh look at the famous Battle of Maldon.

Ten Questions on the Battle of Maldon

The Battle of Maldon on 11th August 991 is celebrated as a defining moment in the town's history, the subject of one of the great poems in our literature, and part of a uniquely British tradition of glorious defeats.

On the face of it, the basic facts are well known: a Viking army landed on Northey Island, Earl Byrhtnoth assembled an army of Essex men, the Vikings were killed one by one as they tried to cross the narrow causeway to land, and Byrhtnoth sportingly invited them to cross over unopposed so they could fight a fair battle.

Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, and his men bravely fought against the Vikings. (Photo: Ben Shahrabi)

The battle-hardened Vikings thereupon slaughtered the heroic but amateur locals, and Byrhtnoth's brave but futile defence entered into legend.

But was it really as simple as this?

1. Why did it happen?

A sizeable Viking fleet had pillaged Folkestone and the surrounding area, then Sandwich followed by Ipswich. They landed at Maldon, tempted by the Royal Mint held in the town. Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman (Earl) of Essex, had assembled an army of East Saxons to defeat them.

2. Who was defending Maldon?

Byrhtnoth was a giant in stature by the standards of the times, was in his 60's and had snowy white hair. He had a successful military record of fighting the Vikings, and had a strong force of personal household troops, plus a much larger number of the Essex Fyrd, or militia. We shouldn't think of the latter as a sort of Dad's Army of well-meaning amateurs: by this time, the early universal levy of free farmers had been replaced by the much more selective system, where a proportion of men were retained to fight for their local area when needed, with equipment supplied and some military training. If you were in the ranks as a Fyrdman, you would know the people to left and right of you, and you would know how to use your weapons.

3. What did Saxon soldiers look like?

The photographs illustrate this. Basic kit was spear, shield and helmet. The best equipped troops had in addition, a sword, axe, mail shirt and the distinctive single-sided Seax (Essex knife). The Battle of Maldon poem mentions exchanges of bow and javelin fire, but both sides regarded these as secondary weapons.

4. What did Anglo-Saxon sound like?

It would initially be unintelligible to modern ears, but gradually elements would make sense. The video with this article gives us a good idea of what it sounded like.

5. How many men fought?

No numbers are given, but we can estimate from the number of longships in the original expedition (93), and average crew size. Up to 4,000 Vikings and a similar number of Anglo-Saxons would have fought, a large battle for this period, as large cities like London and Winchester had populations of less than 10,000 at the time. It would have been an awe-inspiring sight.

6. Why did Byrhtnoth let the Vikings cross the causeway?

This wasn't an example of sportsmanship gone wrong but a reasonable decision. The Vikings would not have continued queuing up in single file to be cut down, they would simply have sailed away to plunder somewhere else. Byrhtnoth needed his battle: it wasn't easy to assemble an army, and he must have felt he had the force he needed to carry out his mission.

7. What should a Saxon soldier do to survive battle?

The best advice would be, "Stay in your ranks. Keep your shield to your front to maintain the shield wall. Don't show off or try single combat."

8. What happened when things began to go wrong?

The sources record that when close quarter combat began, the Vikings struggled at first against a stubborn defence. Eventually a determined effort was made against Byrhtnoth, who was fighting in the front row. It took three men, but he was cut down. This triggered a general flight by the Fyrd, who had fought hard up to this point. The loss of a leader and the collapse of the shield wall would signal the end, and understandably death or slavery held little appeal to part-time soldiers who had done their bit. Not so for the household troops: bound by strong ties of honour and duty they fought on to the last man round the body of their leader. It's likely that the Vikings took particularly high casualties at this point.

9. Who won?

The Saxons died or fled, and England started to pay tribute to the Vikings for the first time. On this basis it was a crushing defeat. But the Vikings failed to take the town of Maldon, their objective, and it's recorded that the Viking losses were so high that they couldn't crew all their ships as they left. If we factor in the immortality earned by Byrhtnoth through the celebrated poem, we have much to be proud of.

10. Where was the battle fought?

Officially, the battle is located in the attractive area where the causeway from Northey Island joins the mainland. But pre-gunpowder age battlefields are notoriously difficult to locate: landscape and placenames change, and weapons were generally retrieved, unlike the trails of musket balls and cannon balls that litter later battle sites. Even the Battle of Bosworth (1485) has two hotly-contested locations several miles apart. Local historians Stephen Nunn and Keith Scrivener contend that the battle was fought in the area now covered by industrial buildings in Heybridge, where a tidal river was later crossed by the "High Bridge" in medieval times. A Viking sword now located in the Combined Military Services Museum offers a tantalising clue to this, being found (it is said) nearby, but frustratingly further details of this and other relics said to have been reburied are not available.

The shouts, screams and cries of up to 8,000 men as they fought a brutal and terrifying battle for survival leave no visible traces, but the memory of that heroic age of honour and duty lives on.

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